Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rancho Notorious

Rancho Notorious (Fritz Lang, 1952) The old-old story of Hate!  Murder!  and Revenge!

After hearing about this one for oh-so-many years, I finally got a chance to sit down and luxuriate a while with Rancho Notorious, a film that offers so many surprises—subtleties and Big Statements—that work-outs were had by both my jaw (dropping) and the remote, which afforded me the essential ability to go back and "look at that again."

Rancho Notorious offers opportunities a-plenty for both. You don't see very many movies where people are actively snarling at each other, but then there aren't many movies like this wildly expressionistic main-stream Western directed by the master of German Expressionism Fritz Lang. Preceding High Noon by a matter of months, it also has a song-based score, but an odd one, not so "on the nose" as "Do Not Forsake Me...", but one's that's haunting and echoes through your head like a warning (as it did mine) for days.

The song is "The Ballad of Chuck-a-Luck," (that was supposed to be the movie's title and there's a story for ya*) written by Ken Darby and plays over the titles and interstitially during the murder investigation that lasts the entire movie, each stanza ending with those words "Hate. Murder. And revenge."

So, what's the story, pilgrim?

Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) is a ranch-hand in a small town in Wyoming and he only has eyes for Beth Forbes (Gloria Henry**), the girl who runs the counter at the dry-goods store. But, right after he comes a-courtin' two strangers come into town, with an eye to robbing the store, and when the one sees Beth, things go too far. She's raped and murdered by the outlaw when she screams and the two cowards escape.
Vern Haskell (Arthur Kennedy) doesn't like you

All Haskell wants is revenge, so he quits the ranch and, with a posse, heads in the direction the bastards left town. After hours of riding, the posse gives up, but Haskell refuses to stop, and soon comes across one of the men, Whitey, shot in the back by the other desperado, who only says the words "Chuck-a-Luck" to Haskell with his dying breath. Haskell travels on, gathering clues about the mysterious word that refers to a spinning "wheel of fortune" in gambling houses and a former dance hall girl named Altar Keane (Marlene Dietrich), who made a fortune on her departing spin of the wheel, and left town on the arm of the outlaw "Frenchy" Fairmont (Mel Ferrer), never to be heard of again.

But, "Frenchy's" in jail, so Haskell gets himself arrested, and once behind bars, ingratiates himself with Fairmont, and gets sprung on his coat-tails. The two make their way to the Flying C Ranch, also "Chuck-a-Luck," a working ranch legitimate to the world, but in secret is actually a hideout-for-hire for any outlaw willing to offer up a 10% share of their loot to Altar Keane. Quite the little operation the lady has there, and at the moment, she's full up.

But she makes room for Haskell, whom she describes as "a man who stands in doorways." All the better to survey the room, looking for clues. Is it the guy who's fast with the ladies (George Reeves) with those tell-tale scars on his face? Is it the guy who keeps looking at him funny (Lloyd Gough, not credited due to The Black List), or the guy who's just funny-looking (wall-eyed Jack Elam in an early role, looking lean and mean). He decides to hang out at Chuck-a-Luck, picking up clues, laying low, making himself handy while not necessarily doing anything...illegal, until he can determine who's the right (by saying the wrong) man. It's a little bit like Poirot in spurs with a nasty disposition. Of course, today, Haskell would be expected to lay waste to the room and let God deal with the details. Here, revenge is tempered by justice and not hormones.

Russell Johnson and Marlene Dietrich in Rancho Notorious

Before we get onto the subject of Marlene Dietrich, we should probably discuss the wealth of character actors on the verge of hitting their defining roles: William Frawley, right before "I Love Lucy," George Reeves before "The Adventures of Superman," Mel Ferrer, only his fifth film and right before Scaramouche, Russell Johnson (Happy Birthday, sir), only his second movie, Jack Elam, Dan Seymour, John Doucette, the movie is top-heavy with great veteran character actors with recognizable faces.

Then there's Dietrich.  For those of a certain age (anyone born post-Blazing Saddles), one may not recognize what a force she was and continued to be throughout her career.  She was the preternatural "other" woman, capable of seducing men and (pre-Code) women, one is always hesitant to call her the first feminist, but she might have been in movies, and she certainly was before it became "cool," (and she always was in the role). Put it this way, you'd never see Dietrich in a western riding side-saddle. Rancho Notorious is her slightly softened (although barely—when was the last time you saw a dance-hall girl riding the town sheriff like a horse?), in partnership with a man, and acting out of love or loyalty (always hard to say which with her), but it's her ranch and her operation, and that's something you rarely see in even the most hard-core of Westerns.   And it's weird, but, in Westerns, Dietrich (sorry but it's a spoiler) always seems to take a bullet, as if the genre won't accept her (or any woman) as ruling the ranch. That would change, as film-makers got more bold.**

Rancho Notorious is one of those odd Westerns of the Mainstream that took a decided bend in the river to do something else with the form. There's no pretense at naturalism (Lang wouldn't toy with that until Clash By Night), but used the familiarity of westerns to work out some interesting conflicts about gender roles (Others on that list are Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Samuel Fuller's Forty Guns, and, to a lesser extent, Hawks' Red River).

It's not your usual oater.  It's something different and it's recognizable from the first watch.

* The story goes that Howard Hughes wanted to change the title from "Chuck-a-Luck" and Lang wanted to know why. "Nobody'll understand it" was the reply, even though it was a familiar gambling game in the Southwest. "Okay, so what's your alternative?" Lang asked. "Rancho Notorious." came the reply. "Rancho Notorious?!  Nothing's called 'Rancho Notorious' in this movie! You think anybody'll understand THAT?!"

** There was a shock for me: I remember Gloria Henry as the mother of "Dennis the Menace" on TV.  Her presence was only the first of a long line of TV stalwarts who were paraded throughout Rancho Notorious—"Hey! there's...fill in the blank..."

*** Ford's frontier women usually ran the ranch, but let the men think they did.

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